The Tough Job of "Walking the Talk"​ on Diversity When Going Global

By Anna Koj

When associations decide to expand their focus from national or regional to global, they have a long list of strategic decisions to make and organizational restructuring to carry out. When they think of recruitment, they usually focus on the logistics rather than the impact on the organizational culture.

Diversity is a buzz word and most association leaders will tell you they already cherish diversity in their teams. Only some, however, really walk the talk. Mainly because it is more difficult than it sounds. It becomes even harder, but also more important, when embarking on a change path towards a truly global organization. 


It is hard because contrary to the old saying that “opposite attracts”, we tend to surround ourselves with people that are similar to us, often falling prey to unconscious bias. We all have biases, and they are not easy to counter but working on your self-awareness is a good place to start.

It is hard because when coming from a European melting pot for example, such as Brussels, we tend to believe to be very inclusive and international, already. Europe is indeed very diverse, but the world is even more so. When considering going global, try launching projects with sister associations from other parts of the world to challenge your assumptions and broaden your horizons.

Finally, review your in-house recruitment process or engage with external advisers to make sure you identify what “diversity” means for your organization. Then, build your job descriptions accordingly to attract diverse talent; and set your assessment criteria to avoid bias when choosing the successful candidates.

It is important because when your organization is global, your audience is, too. And as a responsible organization leader you want to ensure that your team and your work represent your stakeholders as broadly as possible. It will not only increase the team’s creativity, it will help you properly understand the needs and the pain points of your clients, and craft adequate solutions. Ultimately, it may just be the key to your global success.


The article was originally written for HQ - The Association Magazine and can be found online, along with the full December 2018 edition of the magazine, here.

May curiosity be with you

By Anna Koj

In times when most people are satisfied with half-relevant and simplified answers, as long as they come in swiftly, it is not always easy to be the one digging deeper. Temptation is high to google your way through. 

Genuine curiosity is as precious as it is rare these days.It can also be an extremely powerful tool in becoming a better and more authentic leader. 

Firstly, curious minds are never satisfied with simplistic answers

They always ask: “why?”, look for details, analyse and get to the bottom of things. This allows them to stand on strong foundations, see the broader picture and trust their own judgment. They start and lead new conversations instead of just dropping an occasional answer. 


Secondly, curiosity opens your mind to new concepts.

It makes you seek new experiences, develop diverse interests and grow beyond one specific role you see yourself in. This is the very basis of becoming a leader: you are confident in making unexpected and unconventional connections, bringing inspiring people on board because you know their value just as you know yours; and you don’t feel threatened. You focus on creating something bigger than yourself.

Thirdly, it teaches you to ask the right questions – a skill that is often underestimated

If properly used, it can not only showcase your knowledge and help you gather information, but also create lasting and meaningful relationships with people around you. As they say, they may forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. And we all like to feel listened to and understood.


Finally, it helps embrace the unknown and thrive in unpredictable circumstances

Today more than ever things can change by 360 degrees in a heartbeat. To be a successful transformational thinker, it is no longer enough to be able to comprehend the complexity of the world. What is needed is to be bold and feel comfortable leading while knowing that you don’t know most of the variables. 

May curiosity be with you!  

The article has been first published as part of the HQ - The Association Magazine's #85. All digital editions of the magazine can be found on their website, here.

When women come together, great things happen

By Anna Koj

When I joined Professional Women International Brussels (PWI Brussels) a few years ago, little did I know just how much it would influence my life. Just another opportunity to network and attend some events, I thought.

Two and a half years later, I am a member of PWI Brussels’ Board as Vice-President responsible for Partnerships. I have organised and lead our Events Team. I have helped put together a number of great events and initiatives, and I have grown … ohh so much!

I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman. I go through life proudly, take up new challenges and openly face what comes my way. Why would volunteering for a women’s organisation bring me any benefit?

Firstly, when women come together, great things happen.

I believe that we, as a society, can achieve more and flourish when we work together, women and men alike. Equality, the right and opportunity to equally contribute to the common project, is something I have been taught early on by my parents, something I have brought along with me to adulthood. 

I realise, however, that still many women grow and live convinced that their work and actions are somehow less valuable, that they don’t have the right to take ownership of their own personal and professional life. PWI Brussels has shown me the unique power of women coming together. We shine when working collectively, building on our individual strengths to achieve a common goal. This has been such an incredible empowerment tool for so many women I have met along the way.

Secondly, volunteering lets you grow your professional skills almost seemingly, and it’s so much fun.  

Volunteering is a great way of learning by doing, while also having the time to look inside yourself, reflect on what suits you, what doesn’t and finding your own, unique leadership style. It’s not about attending a yet another one-day training course, getting a certificate and pretending you have overnight become an expert. Instead, since it all happens so naturally, these new skills grow on you and you own them without feeling fake and having to fake it, till you make it.   

Finally, having safe space really is a thing.

Before and even after joining PWI Brussels, I honestly thought that the whole concept of “safe space” was a just another empty, overused term. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Volunteering for an association that has enough professional structure allows you to push yourself and try new ways of leading a project or a team. It gives you a chance to find out your professional persona, realise where you may be lacking skills and allows space and opportunities to develop them. All this without the constant fear of being judged and possibly fired. 

The article has been first published as part of the HQ - The Association Magazine's #84. All digital editions of the magazine can be found on their website, here.

Having a clear organisational vision helps to identify, attract and retain top talent

By Anna Koj

Figuring out your own identity as an association may not always be easy, especially within the current political environment with policy developments coming at you at an ever-increasing speed. While short-term goals and individual strategies naturally change and adapt, having a clear idea of what your overall vision is can help you identify the best talent for your organisation and, ultimately, steer you through volatile times, ensuring lasting success. 

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How to keep your vision alive and gain people’s buy-in? 

Value your values and make them your solid base for both internal and external interactions. When recruiting, whether independently or via an agency, ensure the candidates are screened from the point of view of their personality and organisational culture match, too. You want to hire people that will thrive working for you, becoming better professionals, organisation’s strong pillars and your best advocates. 

Strong organisational vision does not mean lack of diversity. 

 Hiring people that will fit with your organisational culture does not mean you should oppress individuality, limit diversity and end up in a tunnel of organisational bias. Welcoming diverse backgrounds and opinions has been proven to bring extremely positive results to teams and organisations. Your vision is about standing strongly by your values and using them as a guideline to make a positive impact in the world. 

What’s in it for you?

In a world of volatility, where everything can be put into question, taking a stand on what is important for your association will become your anchor. It will help you group around your organisation people (both internally as employees, and externally as followers and supporters) that will amplify your messages, boost your visibility and be your advocating force. This should not be undervalued as, ultimately, it’s people that make or break your success.

Written by Anna Koj for EARS - the European Affairs Recruitment Specialists, published by HQ - The Association Magazine Special Summer Edition/2018.
The full issue of the July edition of the HQ Magazine is available

Agency or not, that is the question

By Anna Koj

Agency or not, that is the question.

When facing a new recruitment process in your association, you may ask yourself whether to handle the process internally or outsource it. Working with an external agency always carries risks, but it also brings numerous opportunities. While the answer will depend on a number of factors unique for your organisation, there are a few things that can ensure a smooth collaboration should you decide to seek external support. 

The do’s and don’ts.

First of all, know what you’re looking for. Last thing that will bring you high quality candidates is undecidedness and changing your mind about the ideal profile half-way through the process. Recruiters will always keep an eye out for “potentials”. However, having a clear understanding of what you’re looking for is key to properly targetting the search.

Secondly, be committed to the process. You will be meeting candidates that may not be actively looking for a job. Not providing any feedback after the interview or dragging the process for months, you will only risk losing the good candidates. Remember that as much as you choose them, they choose you. 

Finally, be honest about your situation. Recruiters should know about any possible internal issues the new hire will have to face, as much as they should know your unique selling points to attract candidates. This will allow for a comprehensive evaluation of candidates, save time and ensure the process is professional.  

Written by Anna Koj for EARS - the European Affairs Recruitment Specialists, published by HQ - The Association Magazine #83/2018.
The full issue of the May edition of the HQ Magazine is available

Ethical blindness triggers and the need for stronger ethical leadership

By Anna Koj

The recent Volkswagen emissions scandal is a yet another signal indicating the clear need for stronger ethical leadership in today’s business environment. It can also provoke interesting reflections on the topic of ethical blindness (for a general introduction to the concept see my previous post on Unethical decision-making in organisations & what to do about it) in the car industry.

While it is clear that the Volkswagen software has not been set to cheat the emissions tests by mistake, we still don’t really have enough details, thus it wouldn't really make sense to second-guess, risking to fall into the trap of blaming all or poorly trying to excuse some. Instead, let’s use the topicality of the issue to dive deeper into certain ethical blindness triggers, which are common, although not exclusive, for the industry.

Regardless of the individual responsibilities in the current scandal, a substantial debate on how our societies and businesses function today would be useful to address certain widespread ethical blindness inducing elements.


It is an issue as relevant to the key decision-makers in top industries as it is to all of us, because ethical blindness is not only limited to those who actively engage in unethical doing. It can and it does affect witnesses of moral misconduct, as well (Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman from the Harvard Business School have done some more in-depth research on the issue).

So, which are the factors that can prompt gradual erosion of our internal moral compass?

People interpret what they see and hear. They familiarise what they experience. Framing can be a natural, internal process, through which individuals make sense of the reality they live in, a process of creating mental maps, through which they structure their world. It can also be an external, intentional process aimed at presenting certain situations in a particular perspective, which makes it an important tool of influence. In both cases, the impact of frames on the decision-making process is huge. Firstly, because we often do not realise they exist and therefore have no conscious control over them. Secondly, because by nature, frames are limiting.

Applying the concept to a business environment, say the debated car industry, if playing on the edges of the grey zone of emissions tests is successfully framed as normality, then overriding the relevant rules and laws becomes simply a yet another way of winning with the competition. Just that. Especially if the frame is reinforced by other elements, which additionally legitimise certain behaviours and discourage independent critical thinking.

Time pressure is one such element. It can affect the decision-maker on multiple levels. Principally, by influencing negatively his or her ability of judgment. Secondly, by adding the element of stress, which can prompt over-compliance and groupthink. Furthermore, when making decisions under time pressure, individuals often resort to heuristics, simplifications based on selectively chosen and usually promptly available information. Naturally, the risk of losing important elements in the process, such as the ethical dimension at stake, rises exponentially. Stimulated, additionally, by high levels of competition within industry, decision-makers feel they can't allow themselves to lose precious time because they will remain behind the trends. Quick wins are needed, decisions are often taken in a gambling mode, with more or less calculated risks.


Finally, what also needs to be mentioned is the role of organisational context factors, such as for example unrealistic objectives and the culture of fear.

When employees - on all levels of the hierarchy - face constant dissatisfaction with their achievements and see the benchmark being raised above the realistically achievable goals, rarely will they feel positively motivated to improve their work. In a healthy environment, raising the expectations bar higher might indeed bring people to give their best and to go over the expected result. In a world where no missed opportunities are accepted and where one can’t spare any mistake, however, it will rather push individuals to an almost primordial fight that sees no rules and considers no morals.

When this, additionally, is topped with a pervasive sense of fear and instability, not uncommon in such a highly competitive industry as the car producing one, employees tend to develop what is called a tunnel vision. They identify what in their opinion will make the boss happy and they concentrate exclusively on making it happen, while often loosing sight of a broader picture. Tunnel vision leads to silos thinking, which brings us back to limiting self-imposed or externally imposed frames.

These are only a few of a number of factors that can invoke ethical blindness. They all, however, have a common denominator, which is the crucial role of the leader. In a healthy working environment leaders promote ethical vision and they are aware of the risks coming along with a fast-paced and stressful everyday routine of the industry. They filter and stay on top of the things, while giving the general direction to the whole team. It is also their role to ensure that people are not afraid to speak up if they see moral issues at stake and that these concerns become central to the whole organisation's identity. 

More and more scandals of the recent Volkswagen type indicate that we're still missing a lot when it comes to sustainable, healthy leadership. There are individual examples that can lead the way but a broader discussion on the issue is needed not only to punish the guilty ones when bad things happen but rather to promote positive change for the better.


Originally posted by Anna Koj on LinkedIn, here.